Bill combating D.C. school residency fraud gains traction

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When Gina Arlotto’s children meet classmates at D.C. public schools, they sometimes get invited to pool parties at their new friends’ homes out in Maryland.

The same students will openly say they live in Largo or Hyattsville during assignments that require them to interview each other at the start of the year, Ms. Arlotto, a Ward 6 resident, said during a hearing Thursday on public school enrollment.

Ms. Arlotto supports a bill before the D.C. Council that would beef up the enforcement of residency requirements at traditional public schools and charter schools in the District.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown introduced the bill in April that would increase fines for violating D.C. school residency rules, from $500 to $2,000, and refer cases to the D.C. office of the attorney general.

The bill also requires the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) to lead investigations into residency fraud.

Mr. Brown said his bill is simply an attempt to preserve resources intended for D.C. children. Students from surrounding jurisdictions are allowed to attend D.C. schools, but they must pay tuition of roughly $10,000 a year.

“Until Maryland and Virginia cut us a check for us to educate their children, they should not be allowed in our system,” Mr. Brown said.

His legislation appears to have wide-ranging support, with officials from OSSE, D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Public Charter School Board testifying in support of the bill Thursday at a hearing before the council’s Committee of the Whole.

Mr. Brown said 10 of the 13 council members have co-sponsored the bill.

According to OSSE, a 2010-2011 enrollment audit could not verify the residency of 201 public school students, or 0.4 percent of total enrollment. Schools were able to confirm residency for 126 of them, yet 74 were required to pay tuition or withdraw. Officials were unable to account for the remaining student in their calculations.

Among 59 unverified charter school students, comprising 0.2 percent of enrollment, 24 were able to prove residency and 35 had to withdraw or pay tuition, according to the audit.

State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley said it costs roughly $8,900 to educate a student, meaning the 74 unverified could have put taxpayers on the hook for almost $660,000.

Though investigative efforts are in place, Ms. Mahaley said OSSE does not track what is actually paid in retroactive tuition and fines. It also would need additional resources or support from other agencies to meet the legislation’s expectations, he said.

Ms. Arlotto said officials should focus on students in prekindergarten programs because out-of-state parents clamor to get their young children in day care programs the District provides at no cost.

It should also crackdown on people who use D.C. government credentials or personal connections to get in the door, she said.

“Many people believe that if they went to D.C. public schools, their child is a legacy,” Ms. Arlotto said. “I’ve had people tell me that.”

Mary Lord, a Ward 2 member of the D.C. State Board of Education, said the chairman’s bill is a “strong first step toward strengthening the District’s already strong residency verification requirements.”

The law could be bolstered by quarterly reports on students’ residency status, increased signs on the requirements at schools and an examination of best practices in other states, she said.

Without tighter enforcement, Ms. Arlotto is worried children will grow up and realize they told lies during their early years in school.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said, “that parents expect their kids to deceive people.”

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